Q&A: Tribune Publishing’s Carolyn Shelby

In the fourth in a series of interviews highlighting some of the speakers that will be imparting their wisdom at the final ClickZ Live event of 2014 coming up in Chicago this November, I talked to Chicago native and Tribune Publishing’s Carolyn Shelby about what delegates can expect from her session and how marketers should be thinking about SEO in 2015.

Your session in Chicago is about how to become a leading “SEO mechanic.” What does that mean and why should businesses have one in their employee toolbox?

An “SEO mechanic” is someone who can look at a problem (usually spotted in analytics), figure out what is broken, and either fix it, or explain to IT how it needs to be fixed. Mechanics also do preventative work…

Reviewing code before something is launched, evaluating content management systems or other back-end tools to see if their output is search-friendly, and if not, provide advice and guidance for making the output search-friendly. I know that sounds simple, but having someone on your team that can do that is probably less common than you’d think.

Businesses need these SEO mechanics to increase the efficacy of their marketing efforts. All of the optimized content in the universe isn’t going to help if you have a broken script that occurs on every page preventing the search crawlers from ever getting to that content. There are technical things that can keep great content from being 100 percent visible to the search engines, and those technical glitches happen all the time.

Businesses need someone who can figure out where the glitch/error has occurred, know what the correct output or behavior should be, and be able to tell the development staff how to fix it.

Additionally, SEOs who understand the technical aspects of tools and can evaluate the output against what they know to be best practices are valuable because they can save companies money. They can save labor and frustration that comes from getting the wrong tool and having to spend hundreds of hours adjusting it to work the way you need it to, or they can just save money by advising against the investment in certain products because the effort needed to make those products work the way they need to just isn’t worth the price or features you’re getting.

What are the biggest mistakes businesses are making when it comes to technical SEO and site architecture?

The biggest mistake I see at large companies is that they’re just not bothering with fundamental, on-page SEO best practices. They’re all over the place in terms of architecture, and only look at their analytics to see the traffic numbers. If you’re getting 3 million visits a month with neglected/bad on-page SEO, imagine how much better you’d perform if only you didn’t have 12 H1s per page and maybe had a meta description and decent title on every page?

What kind of internal politics or pushback have you encountered during your career and how do you suggest other SEOs overcome these kind of obstacles?

Generally, the pushback I’ve gotten is from developers who don’t want to be bothered with additional work requested by the marketing department. While I’ve always appreciated how overworked they are, there are still things that need to be done to make the content (and context) understandable to the search engines. The usual pushback phrases are “we don’t build for the search engines, we build for the users” and “it can’t be done.” In my experience, “it can’t be done” is code for “I don’t feel like it” or “I don’t know how to do it”…The way to overcome that objection is just to explain why the request is important and how correcting the issue will positively affect the performance of the page/site in the search engines (and if possible, relate that performance improvement to a dollar figure). If the root of the objection is just a lack of know-how, politely and quietly provide instructions or documentation on how to go about fixing the issue. No one likes to be made to look dumb, especially not by a marketer. If you’re nice about it, you can usually get what you’ve requested. As for the “we build for the users” excuse, I usually point out that there will be no users to impress if we can’t get any visibility in the search engines.

What are your favorite tools and measurement methodologies?

For technical SEO, I rely heavily on tools like Screaming Frog, Majestic, whatever analytics I’ve got available on a given site, and then just reading the source for the pages. As far as measurement methodologies go, I would have to say that they tend to vary by site.

What is normal for one site may be horrible abnormal for another site, but in general I tend to look for abnormal spikes or dips in traffic, indexation, and keyword rankings. For sites with seasonal business, I like to look at the year-over-year (YOY) reports to see if there are any gross deviations in the stats and then determine the cause for those deviations.

Many SEOs are rebranding themselves and their services as being about “content marketing.” What are your thoughts on this shift and why it’s happening?

I think it’s really just a new name for an old thing, and I’m not exactly sure why it started. It’s entirely possible that someone decided it was too difficult to rank their business for “SEO” so they decided to come up with a new name and be the first to optimize for it to ensure they would be at the top of the SERPs. I mean…I played the oboe in grade school so there wouldn’t be any competition for first chair because, seriously, who else plays the oboe?

I looked up “What is content marketing” on Google, and the knowledge graph said:

“Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

That’s pretty much SEO. You could argue that it’s slightly broader than just “trying to be #1 on Google,” but SEO hasn’t just been about keyword density and SERP manipulation for a long time now. At its core, I think content marketing is just more relevant/useful link-baiting.

What will be the top takeaway from your session at ClickZ Live Chicago?

I think the top takeaways will be the tools and examples I use for technical SEO audits, and the quick, proactive things that anyone can do to check to see if things are in order with their site or if something is amiss. It’s always best to catch those things before you suffer a hit on Google because you weren’t keeping your house in order.

Carolyn Shelby will be speaking at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 5 in a session entitled “Assess, Diagnose, Fix: How to Become a Leading SEO Mechanic.”

Get your ticket to ClickZ Live Chicago by registering here!

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